Over the past month, I have been doing some long overdue reading; namely, an autobiography of John Lewis, Walking with the Wind. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, having purchased it in my first summer of ministry, at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.
The conference was called “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda,” and Rep. Lewis was there. He signed my book, and for too long I’ve let it sit, without cracking the spine. But after his passing this summer, and in the midst of the racial tensions that have burst into view once again in our country, I had to read it. Had to know what wisdom this giant of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s could offer us, today.
I was not disappointed. His words, while they might have been written over twenty years ago, are every bit as meaningful and important for us today as they ever were.
And so today, instead of offering you my own thoughts, I want to share some of John’s. As you read the news this week, and grieve and question and pray about the ongoing struggle against racism and inequity in our society, I invite you to keep these words in mind. To sense the invitation here, not to perpetuating the world as we know it, but to something higher, something better, something altogether holy. And may God give us all the strength to work tirelessly, faithlessly, and courageously towards that.
“I go home to Atlanta almost every weekend, as well as during recesses and between congressional sessions. When I do, I go into the streets, into the neighborhoods, into the projects. I see the homeless, the helpless, the anger and the violence, the drugs and the despondency. It is real, it is pervasive, and it cannot be ignored. Some people were shocked by the explosion of rioting in Los Angeles in 1992. They asked aloud, “Where did that come from?” It came from the same place as the rioting in Watts in 1965 and in dozens of other urban neighborhoods in the quarter century since then. The stew of poverty and despair simmers and cooks in the grimmest parts of our cities, and it will not go away. We who do not live in these places might close our eyes or our hearts, we might pretend it does not exist or that it has nothing to do with us, but it will not simply go away. And it has everything to do with us. We have a choice. We can look and listen and respond in constructive, creative ways to our places of poverty, or we can be forced to respond by outbursts of violence such as these riots.
The pat that remains to lead us to the Beloved Community is no longer racial alone. It is one, I believe, marked by the differences, divisions and canyons created by class. There hasn’t been a time in America – certainly not since World War II – that the classes have been pushed as far apart as they are today, with vast numbers of poor at one end, a small number of wealthy at the other and a middle class in danger of completely disappearing as most of it is pushed toward the lower end of the spectrum.
[…] such disparity is a recipe for disaster. It creates a climate of cynicism and discouragement. It encourages people at all ends of the spectrum to turn away from one another, to insulate themselves and, yes, even to arm themselves, for both defense and attack. It makes the political system seem distant, incomprehensible, irrelevant, monolithic and insensitive to the needs of the people. If we are going to begin turning back toward one another, to humanize one another, we need to humanize the political system, we need to make it respond directly to the problems of the people – not just to the people in power, or to the people who are the loudest, but to all of the people, including, crucially, those who have no power, those who have no voice.
The poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. We cannot run away from them. We’re all living in this house. […] We must realize that we are all in this together. Not as black or white. Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or “non”-Americans. But as human beings.”
Quoted material from Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY: 1998.